Yippee!!!! Elizabeth Bowen’s Life (continued)
I finished three more books…. yeah! They are Remembering to Breathe: Inside Dog Obedience Competitionby by Willard Bailey (#53 Hard Copy), #15 HC Elizabeth Bowen: Portrait of a Writer by Victoria Glendinning (1977 Penguin), and #16 HC Elizabeth Bowen by Patricia Craig. (1986, Penguin).
I have this idea that I’m going to keep a pile of finished books and take a picture of the accumulating pile – we’ll see – obviously, a challenge for stuff on a kindle. And I’m not sure I can bear to pile them up for a year instead of putting them in their proper alphabetical slots on my shelves…
Let’s talk about the biographies first.
Elizabeth Bowen (Craig) and Elizabeth Bowen (Glendinning):
It has been very interesting reading these books at the same time. The Glendinning (261 pp) was published first in 1977 just four years after Bowen died. The Craig (143 pp) was published nine years later in 1986. Both are by Penguin. I suspect few people read them simultaneously, aside from Bowen scholars working on a paper or thesis. Because I did, I found something very disconcerting.
The Craig biography is quite derivative of the Glendinning to the point of (near? actual?) plagiarism. I’m not sure how plagiarism is defined in this case, especially since they were issued by the same publisher… The Craig biography is one in a series (Lives of Modern Women) and she frequently refers to Glendinning. That’s fine. The thing that bugs me is Craig’s use of quotes and events – most of the quotes she used were also used in Glendinning. And many little events are mentioned in both. I’m not sure whether this can be defined as plagiarism since the sources for the quotes and events would be Bowen’s and her friends’ letters and diaries, but it was disconcerting. At this very least, it means that the Craig is, in many ways, just a shorter, watered down version of the Glendinning.
The last time I was talking about Bowen’s life, she and Alan were living through World War II in London. Elizabeth wrote her most famous novel In the Heat of the Day about London during the war. She came out of it with growing fame. She was starting to become known in the United States and throughout the rest of her life, she frequently visited on speaking tours and semester visits to university writing programs. In order to make ends meet, she wrote many, many articles for women’s magazines on subjects that seem trite for a writer of her fame and caliber. These articles served to increase her reknown in the states.
Alan begins a downhill slide grounded in alcoholism and obesity and dies in 1952, 21 years before Bowen. Although she had affairs, with one – with Charles Ritchie – lasting for decades, Elizabeth was deeply attached to Alan, probably not in a particularly sexual way. They had worked out a way of living together reasonably happily and she missed him terribly.
But, she went on: writing, hosting parties, repairing to Bowen’s Court when she could, traveling… The thing that continues to strike me as I read more of her work and have finished these biographies, is that her life is in her novels and short stories. I will be interested to see if this tendency is as striking with other authors. I definitely see it in Cather.
What is my sense of her after having read a fair amount of her work and learned about her life? I admire her for the intellectuality of her life, work, and friends. She lived in a time and place when the best thinkers and writers of a generation knew each other and interacted, some very frequently. For someone born in 1899 she carved out a remarkable life. She came from a deeply troubled family with an equally impressive pedigree. She was brilliant and faced many struggles. Throughout her lifetime, she mixed conventionality with great unconventionality, in her friends, her marriage, her dress, her affairs, and her writing.
Bowen was highly disciplined, as many prodigious and successful writers are: morning were, throughout most of her life, strictly reserved for writing. You can also see a trajectory in her work. Early on, with her early short stories (The Daffodils, Breakfast) and novels (The Hotel) she wrote what Glendinning described as social comedies.
These are tightly wound, acerbic observations thick with painterly descriptions environmental context and of the tiny, subtly needling manner in which people often interact – they are often quite funny. This is the work which Virginia Woolf described as copying her own novels (and Henry James’s). Over time, she moved away from this “project” to work that more deeply probed human relationships – always very attentive to the pain people cause each other, and the comedy of manners moves to the background. Toward the end of her writing career, she became more experimental, with work such as Eva Trout and “The Happy Autumn Fields” that shifts back and forth in time with little explanation.
Happy Reading, Ruby!
HC = hard copy and, as always, I number books by the order in which they are first mentioned in my blog.